Center News Magazine: Robin Roberts Celebrates with Fellow Stem Cell Transplant Recipients

By Jim Stallard, MA, Writer/Editor  |  Thursday, October 17, 2013

Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts joined more than 200 fellow stem cell transplant recipients along with their families and friends last night at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s 18th annual Stem Cell Transplant Survivors Celebration. The event, which drew more than 550 guests, allowed transplant patients to meet one another and reunite with doctors, nurses, and other staff, and to share memories about how the procedure restored their health and changed their lives.

“We meet to celebrate the success you’ve had in this journey and to acknowledge all the people who helped you to have that success,” Sergio A. Giralt, Chief of the Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service, told those gathered. “We also meet to thank you, because all of you here don’t know how invigorating it is to all the staff at Memorial to see you. It really is heartwarming to see that we were able to be part of the reconstruction of your lives.”

Ms. Roberts received a stem cell transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the fall of 2012 for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that arises in the bone marrow due to a disorder of hematopoietic stem cells, the immature cells from which all blood cells develop. She was hospitalized for several weeks and was closely monitored and cared for as an outpatient by a team of doctors, nurses, and staff under the direction of Dr. Giralt.

A transplant patient and a caregiver also addressed the celebrants, recounting the distressing onset of illness and praising the care received at Memorial Sloan Kettering during treatment and recovery.

Jennifer Jones Austin recalled that soon after being diagnosed with acute leukemia four years ago, her health deteriorated to the point where she was given a 1 percent chance of survival by physicians at another institution. After pulling through a coma, she could not find a suitable stem cell donor but was able to receive a cord blood transplant under the care of Juliet Barker, who heads the Cord Blood Transplantation Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

“When I was walking the halls rebuilding my strength, I noticed photos of prior stem cell celebrations on the walls,” Ms. Austin said. “Every time I rounded the corner and came upon those photos, I thought to myself, ‘One day I’m going to be there.’ I would not be here — or as strong physically, emotionally, and mentally — were it not for the transplant team. I owe you so much.”

Judy Swanson said that when her husband, Bill Cavell, was diagnosed with MDS, she had no doubt where to go for treatment — she herself had been a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering approximately 20 years ago. In addition, her daughter-in-law, Lianne Cavell, was at the time doing her fellowship in gastroenterology at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Lianne suggested that Bill and Judy meet with hematologist Hugo R. Castro-Malaspina.

“We never questioned anything, never got a second opinion, we were just ready to go,” Ms. Swanson said. “I want to thank Dr. Castro-Malaspina, who is truly our family hero, and all the doctors — and their families — for all the personal time in their lives they have given up for this cause because they were here helping all of us.”

Marcel R. M. van den Brink, head of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Division of Hematologic Oncology, praised the work of Dr. Giralt in leading the Memorial Sloan Kettering’s stem cell program. In addition, he remarked that he recently read an article stating that eight in ten Americans believe that angels are real — and that five in ten believe they have their own guardian angel. “I am here to tell you that it’s true,” he says. “I know them, I’ve seen them, I work with them, and they are called transplant nurses. I can tell you that we have very strict screening to hire only angels for our program.”

Richard J. O’Reilly, Chief of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Service, noted that several patients in attendance had been transplanted more than 30 years ago and were still returning to the annual event. “This is a wonderful place, but it’s been made wonderful by the extraordinary patients who come here,” he said. “You have constantly been an inspiration to us to develop new approaches, urging us on to get better just by saying it’s not quite as good as it needs to be.”

To learn more about stem cell transplantation, read a Q&A with experts on our Adult Bone Marrow Transplantation Service about the procedure, the recovery process, and becoming a donor.